Vol II no. 11 May 27, 2003  
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Weapons of Mass Distraction

Alton Miller, who served as Press Secretary to Mayor Harold Washington, teaches “Politics and the Media" at Columbia College Chicago. He is also a member of PCG's Board of Directors. His other commentaries are also available online.


Already, in the spring of 2003, pundits are proclaiming the inevitability of the reelection of George W. Bush a year and a half from now. Though polls show the public prefers the Democrats’ domestic policies, the same polls show that Bush personally enjoys broad popular support.

So the Bush team is acting aggressively, and transparently, to push both his foreign and domestic agenda, pulling no punches, with apparent success. His Rasputin, Karl Rove, is irrepressible. Some of the same PR techniques that worked in war are effective on the domestic front as well. Theatrics trump issues, and what’s a poor Democrat to do?

Through the fog of war, it is now clear that the principal G.O.P. agenda is after all domestic – to starve the federal government by passing massive tax cuts year after year, tax cuts that profit Bush administration officials directly while leaving the vast majority of Americans behind. The cuts are disingenuously posed as stimulants that will revive our desperate economy. Meanwhile their actual price tag is understated by half a trillion dollars, in another deceptive trick of federal budgeting. And the real cost is being felt in drastically reduced social services – which is to say, public education and police as well as welfare agencies – as state and local budgets are forced to take up the slack.

All this is being done in the open. The Washington Post reports that “Paul Weyrich, a conservative with ties to Bush, said he was told at a White House meeting that ‘we intend to try to offer a new tax cut every year’ – a view top Bush aides have expressed to a number of business lobbyists. Grover Norquist, an anti-tax advocate who works closely with Bush aides, predicts: ‘You’ll have a tax cut each year. I state it that way in all of the (White House) meetings, and I never get an argument.’”

So these are not ideological opinions – they’re facts that reporters report, and analysts analyze. But their impact is dulled by distraction – by more colorful news events stagemanaged by Mr. Rove and a list of technical accomplices that runs longer than the credits for The Matrix Reloaded.

The folks at the White House have read Neal Postman’s insightful Amusing Ourselves to Death: “Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself... how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged... In courtrooms, classrooms, operating rooms, board rooms, churches and even airplanes, Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other.”

“The television commercial shapes political discourse,” Postman argues. “The television commercial has been the chief instrument in creating the modern methods of presenting political ideas.”

The problem is that TV images are stronger than logic. Surveys show that television, not the New York Times, or news magazines, or NPR, is the source of news that enjoys the most credibility among the American public – seeing is believing. Political advocacy, applying the lessons of commercial advertising, capitalizes on that fact. As Postman describes it,

    The truth or falsity of an advertiser’s claim is simply not an issue. A McDonald’s commercial, for example, is not a series of testable, logically ordered assertions. It is a drama – a mythology, if you will, of handsome people selling, buying and eating hamburgers, and being driven to near ecstasy by their good fortune. No claims are made, except those the viewer projects onto or infers from the drama. One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it.

Political consultants tell their clients that “persuadables” – the swing voters who fall between your solid supporters and your opponent’s base voters – make their decisions based on four factors: “character,” “image,” “style,” and “how you handle the issues” – not what the issues actually are, but how the candidates “handle” them.

With political discourse so debased, the G.O.P. strategists have been more successful than Democrats at shamelessly gaming the system – not that Democrats wouldn’t like to do it better. Bush’s misdirection is a source of pride among his staff. When the New York Times reported in depth this month about how the “Keepers of Bush Image Lift Stagecraft to New Heights,” their reporters had no trouble getting White House stage managers to acknowledge their work. Among the examples cited in the article:

...Bush’s theatrical landing on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, wearing a flight suit – especially audacious given the inevitable contrast it invited with his own military career as an AWOL reservist.

...The floating of three giant barges filled with commercial floodlights into New York harbor, where they illuminated the Statue of Liberty for an evening appearance by George Bush on Ellis Island. Event planners put the TV platform where their shot would frame the president and the brightly-lit symbol of our freedom, which would otherwise have been an indistinct blur hovering somewhere behind him.

...Last summer’s Mount Rushmore shot. Once again, the TV platform was located to flatter the president when he made an appearance in South Dakota, so that the media had to shoot him in profile, and from just the necessary distance to make his head appear proportional with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt’s.

...“[A]t a speech promoting his economic plan in Indianapolis, White House aides went so far as to ask people in the crowd behind Mr. Bush to take off their ties, WISH-TV in Indianapolis reported, so they would look more like the ordinary folk the president said would benefit from his tax cut.”

...And just about any time the president appears on TV, he is speaking to a hand-picked friendly audience, against a backdrop that promotes the administration’s message of the day. When he went to Arizona to promote his tax plan, Time reports, “the White House unfurled a backdrop that proclaimed its message of the day, ‘Helping Small Business,’ over and over. The type was too small to be read by most in the audience, but just the right size for television viewers at home, Time reported.

Time shows how these tricks are produced by former journalists and media professionals so cozy with the administration they make battlefield embeds look like adversaries: “Greg Jenkins, a former Fox News television producer in Washington ... is now the director of presidential advance. Mr. Jenkins manages the small army of staff members and volunteers who move days ahead of Mr. Bush and his entourage to set up the staging of all White House events.”... Bob DeServi, formerly of NBC, wrangles those floodlights: “You want it, I’ll heat it up and make a picture”... ex-ABC producer Scott Sforza “created the White House ‘message of the day’ backdrops and helped design the $250,000 set at the United States Central Command forward headquarters in Doha, Qatar, during the Iraq war.”

The Doha base was an outpost of the White House, not the Pentagon, as we learn from the post-mortems of the apparently bogus made-for-TV story about the “rescue” of Jessica Lynch. The Chicago Tribune reports, “In its handling of the story, the Pentagon was taking its cues from the White House, which had dispatched a former Bush campaign official to the Central Command base in Doha to manage the daily briefings to 700 journalists at a center with a specially built $250,000 stage.”

Bush’s warrior posturing is the most flagrant play-acting of a serious politician since Rudy Giuliani put on a dress and lipstick. Unlike Rudy, whose Milton Berle antics were titillation without consequence, Bush’s “Top Gun” role is in the service of a complex Mideast and global agenda. Incidentally, or perhaps not, it also promises to enrich a few of Bush’s buddies.

As lethal as the warrior role has proven to be, it’s his mendacity and misdirection in economic policies that should worry us even more. Through stagecraft, he is overcoming a healthy public skepticism about tax cuts, and putting the future of our economy at grave risk. Surveys show that when the tax cuts are put in perspective, they are not popular. A Washington Post-ABC News Poll found that, “given the choice between tax cuts and spending on domestic priorities, the public favored spending by 67 percent to 29 percent. Asked to rank issues in order of importance, tax cuts ranked 10th.”

Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said, “You may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.” True, perhaps, but we take little comfort when we reflect that it’s only necessary to fool some of the people some of the time, to achieve a majority of electoral votes, or pass the Bush tax plan.

Democrats despair at beating Bush at his own game. I think that’s a good thing. I think we need to get politics out of that game, and into a discourse that follows the advice of another Illinois liberal who urged us, “Let’s talk sense to the American people.”

But even Adlai Stevenson lacked the strength of his convictions. In the rough-and-tumble of his 1952 and 1956 elections, he was ever the gentleman. The time is long past for kid gloves. Let’s call a lie a lie, however cleverly the lie is packaged. It’s time for a truth squad – a blue-ribbon posse of principled, credible, bi-partisan men and women of virtue – to be recruited to stand up for veracity in public discourse, shame the media, and dog every fiction the White House whips up. Pew? Carnegie? We need some backup.

© 2003 Alton Miller
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